Perfect Anti-luddite Synth Pop for the Supersonic Jet Set
Le Concorde denotes first of all the historic Franco-British supersonic commercial wonder jet, which made flights from Europe to North America and the eastern U.S. in half the time of other airliners. It pioneered several technologies, set speed records for commercial jets, and won design contests. It was retired after 27 years of service in 2003, its marvelous qualities nearly forgotten today. Like the wonder jet, Le Concorde’s music celebrates the high production values of past Euro synth pop, largely forgotten today, ironically, with the MGMT and Midnight Juggernauts generation’s musical amnesia.
At first glance, Le Concorde’s latest effort, House might strike some listeners as pandering ear candy. However, when you dig below the surface of this remarkable album, rife with ‘80s synth pop winks and proud influences, and put it in the context of the artist’s ongoing critical musical project, you find the opposite: an important reflection on, critique of, and response to the cyclical, delusional or just dishonest indie enamoring of authenticity, simplicity, and supposed non-production. What is worse, for Le Concorde, indie disdain for “production” and “mediation” results in a superiority complex about an “authenticity” that never existed in the first place. Hip-hop and electro music genres have playfully and creatively embraced production, but in wide swathes of indie rock-pop, “over-produced” has been a refrain to identify commercial rock-pop and insist on its (superior) difference from it. Singer-songwriter Stephen Becker’s musical output engages this indie rock false consciousness, what one of Becker’s influences, Green Gartside, has called “the battle against unreconstructed rock music”.
Le Concorde is primarily Becker, who in the late ‘90s headed the Chris Stamey-produced Chicago power popsters Post Office. Post Office was jangly guitar pop in love with the genre’s mature age that boasted bands like, The Dwight Twilley Band and Badfinger, to say nothing of Big Star. Sound-wise, since Le Concorde’s eponymous 2004 debut, Becker has embarked on a project that is much more focused on playing with ‘80s electronic pop, while combining guitars in ways that make them sound deliberately artificial—an extension of his larger scale critique. Going synth, of course, despite some exceptions, was until the recent new Indie synth-pop wave, the bête noire of Indie rock. That was the crime ‘80s New Wave had committed against late ‘70s “authentic” and deliberately raw punk rock. After the recuperation of electric guitars in ‘90s Indie rock, and, some would argue, their innovational exhaustion, Becker turned to the synth past, especially the electro-funk genre-bending of Scritti Politti and the dulce synth pop of OMD, though as an experimental base and not a mere retro-imitation.
Across those years, Becker’s love of production, layers, and detail unsurprisingly brought him in contact with a variety of musicians and creative sound engineers. In Chicago, there was Ed Tinley who engineered for Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair, and who engineered and played on 2004’s Concorde, 2005’s Universe and Villa, 2007’s Suite, and now House.
By 2007’s Suite, Becker was making sojourns to L.A. to collaborate with his mentor, David Gamson of Scritti Politti keyboard fame. For those who don’t know him, Gamson is not just the keyboardist behind two of the ‘80s’ biggest synth-based albums (Cupid & Psyche 85 and Provisio), but also a major producer and engineer who has worked with an impressive clientele ranging from Miles Davis to Roger Troutman. On House, Gamson continues his collaboration with Becker. In addition to Gamson and Tinley, Becker has enlisted legendary Chicago producer and inventor of house music, Vince Lawrence.
These albums are layered and sleek—in a word, uber-produced. Although details of the instrumentation on House are not revealed in the liner notes, take a look at Becker’s credits on 2005’s Universe and Villa, and you find a tad bit more than keyboard and voice: Bass (Electric), Bird Calls, Composer, Drum Programming, Fairlight CMI, Field Recording, Guitar (Nylon String), Guitar (Steel), Guitar (Synthesizer), Roland Jupiter 8, Piano, Producer, Programming, Simmons Drums, Sound Effects, Telecaster, Tubular Bells, Tympani [Timpani], Vocals, Voice Box, Wind Chimes, Wurlitzer.
The very fact that this is a “project” suggests a kind of ethic of reflexivity toward contemporary music production and business. That is, many are the artists who want to be adored, and many are they who simply reproduce the clichés of the business and larger indie fan culture, in terms of what’s “real” pop music and not commercial or “over-produced”. Fewer are they who reflect on these dynamics and take a position—in every single note, in every single bar, in every single single. In fact, that ethic extends to the entire marketing package. There are no bands, as Shakespeare once said, who are born great; they achieve greatness through work, lots of marketing, but usually have greatness thrust upon them. So, Le Concorde’s position extends to the array of marketing musts these days, such as the YouTube video.
In “Who’s Ever Gonna Feel Sorry For Us”, on the website and on YouTube, he deliberately assumes a persona and lip-synchs with a variety of toy keyboards immersed in a world of brilliant artificial flavor. Please, if it sounds good, it must be “fake”! Furthermore, if you want to get to what’s “really real”, revel in it! But don’t talk about how much more “real” this or that artist is in his or her video because it’s “stripped down” or his or her voice quivers. Pop music is not about truth in advertising.
Hit the brakes for a second. Let’s drop the whole “don’t you get the depth of this project?” stuff for a second. You can’t understate the album’s potential appeal to those totally insistent on not looking at an artist’s vision, history, and lyrics altogether, too. Those listeners ever in love with pop hooks and dance beats will be comfortably at home in House.
“Make Our Move”, “Who’s Ever Gonna Feel Sorry For Us”, “Sick as Your Secrets”, and “If Not Now” are pop gems with virtuosic complementarity of guitar riffs and synthesizer festoonery. The irresistible power chords on “Who’s Ever Gonna Feel Sorry For Us?” suggest that this is not a singer-songwriter who has completely repudiated guitar pop. He has just played with them, distorted and whittled them, so that on this track, for example, they start to sound hyper real—more like synth strings. Other groups have done this, sure, but arguably with less detail and imagination (though with equal amounts of catchiness). Many of the recent indie synth pop bands are melodic but not terribly adventurous. You won’t find, for example, a constant pounding 8th note bass line or the octave back-and-forth bass line cliché of some of these groups.
On “Make Our Move”, an almost songbirdishly plucked New Wave guitar riff creates a foundation on which synths are laid, and then modestly erupt at the song’s climax in an otherworldly layered pop style reminiscent of the Psychedelic Furs. It’s all somewhat reminiscent, and yet, it’s not an imitation of any of those parts, but a playing with and building on them. It’s pleasantly new and familiar all at once. “Movement of Cherry Blossoms” also has a clear acoustic foundation, on which a more detailed synth-structured composition is built.
Other tracks are much more dance music-oriented, though always infused with a pop tone and structure. “Kisses With Comet Tails” reminds me of an entire dance club culture. There’s no guitar foundation to be heard there, but it retains a poppiness and playfulness, with typically breathy vocals and scads of echos, which will separate it from the more abrasive poles of that dance music culture. I am less attracted to this part of Le Concorde’s work, but I’m sure many listeners will find it enjoyable in its sleek dance-inducement. ”Any Bitter Truth” and “Sometimes It’s Hard” sound like the artist’s ego struggling with new wave ids that are guitar-synth pop vs. more exclusively synth new wave, where the latter win out. The Psychedelic Furs vs., for example, ABC, and Naked Eyes.
Lyrically, the album also plays with complexity and superficiality. Many of the words sound like glossy, even empty, on the surface—”pink highlighter pens”, “sick” and “secrets”—but they reveal a more complicated reflection. In “Sick as Your Secrets”, it appears to be counsel to a young person dealing with the pain of self-exploration, growth and knowledge. Other tracks, such as “Sometimes It’s Hard”, have similar themes. Overall, a good deal of the songs use somewhat mundane terms to talk about the challenge of making the familiar unfamiliar, the habitual less so—where seeing differently may mean acting and living differently. In “Make Our Move”, Becker’s slightly reedy melodic voice observes: “We’ve been stuck here now we can move/We’ve been only seeing obstacles/But we’re friends/Anything is possible/And look how a decade disappears when you smile/And think about the west coast”. A different perspective may liberate and allow one to move on. The problem is acquiring it in our entrenched routines. “If Not Now” addresses this same theme.
In the end, the magnificent aeronautical overproduction of Le Concorde the jet was about people moving quickly across time and space, letting them explore the world and return home. House is about an ongoing artistic project that emphasizes the virtue of imaginative uber-production (with a wink to a genre almost synonymous with the latter). But Le Concorde’s House is also about a soul exploring, if not searching, over time and space, trying to find peace with change and trying to make change to find peace. Trying to feel at home, in a house. This album is smart and fun, if you can but allow yourself to revel in its uber-production.